New York City’s TriBeCaStan returned to the studio this summer to record COAL, AGAIN! — a six-track Christmas recording like no other ever heard. It is a follow-up to the band’s first holiday effort, The Twisted Christmas, released two years ago. Coal, Again! releases today, October 28th, via Evergreene Music!
The disc’s opening track, O Little Town of Bethlemayhem (a mash-up of perennial favorites O Tannenbaum and O Little Town of Bethlehem), is given a driving ska treatment, with steel drums, happy horns (featuring engineer Jim “Heavy on the Egg Nog” Clouse on tenor sax) and Boris Kinberg’s Calypso-inspired percussion. It’s fun, danceable holiday music, which harkens back to classic 1940s cartoon music and TV theme songs of the 1950s.
Multi-string player John Kruth’s highly original arrangement of Silver Bells follows, loping through saloon doors with a drunken C&W grin — and a tipsy Hawaiian Salvation Army band in tow — when it suddenly morphs into a mournful klezmer-tinged dirge. Attempting to describe this smile-inducing track simply cannot do it justice; it must be heard to be believed.
Little Drummer Boychik kicks off with a bassline by Ray Peterson, with Claire Daly’s signature, big-bottomed baritone sax giving this Christmas classic a retro-60s spy vibe which strongly evokes Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn. While the melody is articulated on lap-steel guitar by TriBeCaStani reed-man Premik Russell Tubbs — and punctuated by a pack of soul horns — the arrangement is iced by a slew of world instruments, including an exotic Chinese flute known as a hulusi, the Turkish bowed yayli tambur, and a small Hungarian zither called the citera. As the tune builds to a rollicking finish, the TriBeCaStani carolers gleefully chime in with the familiar chorus, “Rum-pum-pum….Me and my drum.”
Good King What’s His Name is built upon the chiming resonance of Burmese gamelan gongs and an African gourd harp known as a kundi, creating the effect of a slightly demented cuckoo clock. Joined by a percussive Jew’s harp, various ethereal flutes — including a fujara overtone flute and a bansuri from India — blend their voices to lend the venerable song an airy, exotic lightness.
Carol of the Bells is actually an adaptation of the traditional Ukrainian folk tune called Schedryk. Considering the recent events in that country, the citizens of TriBeCaStan, in solidarity, felt it appropriate to make a musical statement using this eternally haunting melody. Leading off with a pair of soothing wood flutes (Indian bansuri and double shepherd flutes from Sweden this time), the gentle tune, embroidered by TriBeCaStan’s keyboard wizard Kenny Margolis’ harpsichord, soon explodes into the sonic equivalent of “Guernica” (Picasso’s powerful anti-war painting). Propelled by Rohin Khemani’s muscular drums, echoes of Albert Ayler and In The Wake of Poseidon-era King Crimson can be heard within the swirling shards of sax, bass clarinet and wailing brass. Slowly, this wild interpretation of the 1916 classic artfully de-constructs, as Chris Morrow’s mournful trombone moans and Jeff Greene’s cascading kanun (a Turkish zither) spirals into an abyss of silence.
Wrapping up the recording, TriBeCaStan’s take on Jingle Bells sounds like no other version ever heard anywhere before. This extended track, an intergalactic raga, weaves an electric Indian zither with a ghostly theremin and John Turner’s muted, Miles Davis-like trumpet. A sublime impromptu jam ensues, and the TriBeCaStan ensemble soars into unknown sonic regions until eventually winding down, down, down through finely articulated atmospheric conditions, all the way back once again, to earth…and New York.